Sunday, September 4, 2016

The future of work

I have read a bit about the future of work. Or, to be more precise, the lack of future for those who need and want to work. Quite honestly, I do not like it. As a human being with children and grandchildren I do not want it neither for them nor for all future generations.

At the current rate of technological progress most economists predict that in the very near future robots will produce all the basic goods we need. There will be less and less jobs as robots take over more complex tasks. Wealth creation and accumulation will be restricted to the already wealthy and the innovative few. Humanity, starting with the developed countries, will be faced with mass unemployment. Salaries and purchasing power will continue to drop. This is unsustainable and something needs to happen so that the produced goods can be bought by the others, the masses without jobs and without income. Pretty dire no doubt!

The solution proposed by economists is to have a basic universal income that will be enough to provide for all our basic needs. The average person will not need to work but can go and find work if he/she wants more than just cover those basic needs. Without the need to work to cover all the basic needs the average person can then dedicate his/her time to whatever he/she really likes to do. This basic universal income will be funded from the wealth produced by all the robots and their owners.

I know this description sounds rather superficial, maybe even simplistic, but it is the essence of the proposed universal income solution.

This solution is an economic solution, not a people oriented solution. In fact it is, in my view, very unrealistic. It may solve part of the economic equation but it does not solve the human equation. In fact it exacerbates very pertinent issues such as inequality and lack of opportunity. For instance, what will the average person do if he wants work but cannot find it? Remember that at this stage of the game the masses are all in this "no job, go do something that you really like to do". Not for a living, but to occupy your plentiful idle time. Close your eyes and imagine yourself living in your community under this scenario.

But let me go further into the human mind, into potential human responses to the proposed solution. This universal income solution
  • is ignoring the feelings of exclusion that it will create due to lack of opportunity;
  • does not consider current initiatives by people who want to turn to low or high tech agriculture, weaving, carpentry, etc. to produce unique lasting goods, not Walmart or IKEA run of the mill goods, or tasteless fresh produce originating in "agricultural factories";
  • does not consider the need to give work opportunities to people in developing countries who need opportunities to occupy their low tech yet very useful skills;
  • ignores the human need and desire to feel useful and included. This is already visible in retirement communities whose members are way too healthy and too active to coast their remaining days and are often desperate to be included in their communities;
  • is another on the dole for all who cannot find a job and creates a miserable feeling of lack of control over his/her destiny, not to speak of the negative impact on one's personal pride; the defunct USSR is a clear example of how universal solutions can backfire;
  • it opens a dangerous door to opportunistic abuse by those who live in developing world countries lagging behind and where the negative effects of the robot age will be most serious;
  • it hollows out one's sense of hope in a better future and erodes one's confidence in one's capability of being the best one can be;
  • and the list goes on. Humans are very complex beings, much more that economic entities.
It is important to realize that people want to be included, feel part of their communities and have a useful occupation. This is in the heart and soul of all humans.

A solution to the robot age cannot ignore the human being as a complex human and this universal income solution treats human beings as economic pieces, not as part of a community of humans. The planet Earth community.

I hope this robot factory wealth funded universal income as it has been promoted never comes to pass without serious consideration to all the human factors I mentioned above. For those in power, please do bring in the sociologists, the psychologists and the people before making any decisions.